“Is Paris burning?” Volker Schlöndorff’s fictionalized Diplomacy, starring Niels Arestrup as Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling and opening today at New York City’s Film Forum (and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), responds to Adolf Hitler’s infamous question of his Nazi commander with surprisingly provocative answers.
The French and German-language movie (with English subtitles) opens with Beethoven’s 7th symphony amid black and white footage of Warsaw’s destruction by Germany in the summer of 1944. An old man walks the streets of Paris in the dark, suspicious of everything around him, which ought to tell the audience something important about him. Mysterious narration explains to the audience that “we were all going to die, Europe was consumed by war. The Germans planned to destroy, to raze, everything. Especially Paris.” A flame appears out of nowhere as the camera pans up past a Nazi soldier to a figure standing on a balcony overlooking Paris. He is the Nazi general, smoking a cigarette, indicating in one sweep that tonight he holds the power to ignite Paris, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and all.
After an introduction to the general and his pills, underlings and surroundings, the German answers his subordinate’s question, “what are you going to do?” with the profession of faith that led to Hitler’s Germany: “My duty.”
The general, who faces imminently approaching Allied troops, has total faith in the German state, volk and plan. After the city’s bridges, rigged with explosives, are decimated, the river Seine will be dammed and flood the city, and ruin the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. An engineer’s description of the impending destruction goes on, the score swells, a clock ticks on a mantle and slowly, imperceptibly, the camera closes in on a mirror, where faintly one can make out the face and terrified, alert eyes of the old man.
Still just after four in the morning, an all-night confrontation between the two men unfolds at the Nazi hotel suite on Rue de Rivoli. Whether the Nazi has any independent thought and judgment and is able to see reality for what it is and whether the Swede will sanction the Nazi in some way will be resolved and this reconfiguration of history is cinematic in Volker Schlöndorff‘s hands.
The drama is deft and tightly drawn yet realistic. The interplay, as the men compare and contrast lives and values and negotiate down to the last moment as the U.S. Army tanks roll in, is involving. It’s not easy to make a movie about a moment in history as well known as this and manage to create suspense but Schlöndorff pulls it off with shadows, light and mostly the performances in faces of characters that must choose between life and death, their own and the lives of others, on a deadline that grants no mercy and demands the utmost skill. Not every line and scene rings true in Diplomacy. But the director who adapted the absurdist, surrealistic The Tin Drum focuses on what would matter most to each individual in such a negotiation. Diplomacy depicts a taut, thoughtful and extremely important encounter, sparing the West its treasures, as it might have been.